A number of friends tried to persuade me not to do the interview with Israel’s foremost novelist, leftist, political columnist, and radio host Eli Amir.
“The Egyptian intelligence will tap your phone, one friend speculated. “They’re going to brainwash you, he said.
Regardless of my stance towards normalization and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I was curious to listen to what the other side had to say. The interview was conducted an hour before a small dinner to celebrate the launch of Amir’s latest “Yasmin in Arabic translation.
“Yasmin is a semi-autobiographical novel about the love between an Iraqi Jewish immigrant and a Palestinian Christian widow (the titular character) following the Six-Day War.
Hussein Serag, deputy editor-in-chief of October magazine, translated the text and came under fire by opposition papers including Al-Dostour. The serialization of “Yasmin by Egyptian publishing house Dar Ibn Lokman is one of the first Arabic translations from Hebrew since the beginning of the second Intifada.
“I don’t believe in the word ‘normalization,’ Serag told Daily News Egypt.
“Culture and arts shouldn’t be influenced by politics. Arts don’t have a nationality.
“Since the 1948 War, we’ve never cared to listen to them [Israelis] while they have been digesting our cultural products, he added. “We will never be able to solve anything unless we communicate … We don’t have to agree with them, just listen and try to understand.
Amir was born in 1937 in Baghdad and immigrated to Israel in 1950.
“Jews were in Iraq for 2,750 years. For decades, Iraq was the greatest cultural-religious center for Jewish people, he said. “The best religious books were printed in Iraq. The first novel written in Iraq was by a Jew.
The greatest orchestra conductors were Jewish. The first finance minister who downed the basics of modern economy in Iraq was also a Jew. We’re talking about a very rooted community in Iraq.
Amir believes that members of the Jewish community didn’t want to leave Iraq. According to him, in the 1940s the persecution of Jews became commonplace, particularly after the establishment of the Israeli state.
“Jews were arrested and fired from their jobs; they started fleeing from Iraq to save themselves.
Amir chronicled his last years in Iraq in the acclaimed novel “The Pigeon Breeder of Baghdad. Communism, Islam, Zionism, the fight against the British mandate and Egyptian singer Mohammed Abdel Moteleb’s concerts made up Amir’s fascinating world.
Still, he doesn’t refute that Jews’ desires to return to the Promised Land was a contributing factor to the mass immigration.
Living in the foreign land that was Israel was no easy task in the first few years. “We came only with the clothes on our backs, because they [Iraqi government] froze our property according to law, and they took everything, he said. “We were refugees as a matter of fact.
For the first seven years, Amir and nine family members lived in a tent in what were known as Transition Camps. Coming from a different cultural background and speaking a different language (Iraqi Jews spoke a unique dialect combining Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic) made adapting to their new life difficult.
This is when he met the founding fathers of Israel. “I loved and respected them but their demands were unrealistic.
At age 16, Amir worked as a messenger boy at the prime minister’s office while studying for his degree at night. In the 60s, he received a BA in Arab literature and contemporary history of the Middle East. He was promoted several times over the years and was eventually appointed as the prime minister’s advisor on Arab affairs. He submitted his resignation shortly thereafter.
“I was very disappointed in us, he said. “I believed that 1967 and 1968 represented a time of grace in which we could’ve settled the problems.”My dreams were different, and my strategies to solve the problem were different, he added.
Amir urged the Israeli government to give back the occupied territories for peace, but the officials were reluctant to accept his suggestion.
“You can’t blame anybody in history for whatever decisions they took, he said. “Before the war, we thought that’s it; they [Egyptians and Arabs] are going to finish us off and throw us in the sea.
“We used to hear [radio station] Sot El Arab everyday with officials and commentators screaming ‘slash Israel,’ ‘throw them at sea’. Then Gamal Abdel Nasser gave his famous ‘no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it’ speech in the Khartoum conference in 1967 and it was over.
“I think both sides were wrong, but I’d like to believe that we should’ve remedied our mistakes first.
Amir returned to politics as Shimon Peres’ advisor and then moved further up the ranks to director-general of the Jewish Agency. He only retired from his political career a couple of years ago.
What prompted Amir to write was his community’s failure to accept his Arab roots. “We are Arabs and it was quite insulting the way we were treated back then.
“I was a great lover of Om Kulthoum, Abdel Wahab and Egyptian culture, which was, and still remains, the cultural center of the Arab world and the Middle East. Singing Om Kulthoum in college, at the time, was like committing social suicide.
“I thought these ignorant [people] should know where I came from; they should know what Baghdad is; what Arab culture is; what the Arab culture of a Jew was like.
Amir’s first novel “Deek El Keboor was a hit and he became an overnight sensation. His next novels were welcomed with the same astounding reception, topping bestseller lists. His success rendered Amir one of the most prominent figures in the history of Hebrew literature. Some of his novels made their way into Israel’s national curriculum.
“Yasmin is Amir’s most controversial novel to date. Its palpable leftist ideology, evenhandedness in depicting the Arab-Israeli conflict, and criticism of Israeli society incited right-wing extremists to inundate Amir with death threats.
At the same time, Amir received a handful of letters from college students who claim that “Yasmin changed their political beliefs.
“I don’t think the Israeli people are open enough to accept such a novel, he said. “I don’t think they’re open yet to accept the other .
“Yasmin comes off as this gentle and completely lovable character that everyone fell in love with more than Yuri (the Iraqi-Jewish immigrant). Some people in Israel couldn’t accept that.
Amir blames the ongoing war for anti-Arab sentiments that prevail throughout Israel. “You all think we’re the giant of the world, that’s nonsense.
He also faults the Palestinian Authority for the current state of both countries. “Sharon gave them back the Gaza Strip and look what we got in return. They [Palestinian Authority] have been receiving money from the whole world; you could build Egypt with the money they got.
The Arabic translation of “Yasmin is Amir’s favorite. “It’s the greatest gift for me, and I say that from the bottom of my heart.
He believes that the novel might be the first step in establishing a line of communication between Israelis and Egyptians; and that relations between Israel and its neighbors will never improve unless they start learning about one another.
“I respect people who read the book and reject it. I respect those with opposing opinions than mine. But first, read the book.
Amir dismisses Egypt’s refusal to normalize relations with Israel until it returns the occupied territories to the Palestinians as a fundamentally political issue that should not interfere with arts.
“We’re talking literature here, he said. “Wagner was a fascist. That didn’t stop us from listening to him or acknowledging the fact that he was a great composer.
“I read everything Egyptians and Palestinians write about us, and I realize they always portray us as some kind of demon; but I’m curious to read what they have to say about us and why.
“Om Kulthoum was Nasser’s biggest ally and she sang many songs against Israel. Do you think I
think about that for one moment? I’m an expert in Om Kulthoum by the way and I give extensive lectures about her.